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Did the NYPD Break International Law in Suppressing Occupy Protests?

A new report just out documents how the NYPD used excessive force, arrested reporters, and concludes that police broke international law in their handling of Occupy.

A report by a group of civil and human rights attorneys released Wednesday morning paints the clearest picture yet of the New York City police department’s aggressive tactics and over-policing, all of which resulted in the systemic suppression of the basic rights of Occupy protesters.

The report, which chronicles events from late September 2011 up to July of 2012, extensively documents numerous ways in which the NYPD acted with excessive force, attempted to intimidate and harass members of the press, expelled activists from public space due to the content of their speech, and ultimately concludes that authorities broke international law in their handling of Occupy Wall Street.

The executive summary states, in plain language:

“The abusive practices documented in this report violate international law and suppress and chill protest rights, not only by undermining individual liberty, but also by causing both minor and serious physical injuries, inhibiting collective debate and the capacity to effectively press for social and economic change, and making people afraid to attend otherwise peaceful assemblies.”

The authors of the report make several recommendations. First, they call for the city to enact a new, public protest policy, to be created in coordination with civil rights groups like the ACLU. Second, that Mayor Bloomberg establish an independent review of the policing of Occupy Wall Street since September 2011. Third, that New York State create an independent inspector-general to oversee the NYPD, and, if the state fails to do that, the report calls for the U.S. Department of Justice to step in to investigate the NYPD.

“The report calls for investigations and prosecutions of officials, and for new protest policing guidelines that ensure the NYPD respects core civil liberties and human rights,” said Sarah Knuckey, Adjunct Professor of Clinical Law and Research Director of Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) at New York University School of Law, one of the report’s main authors. “If these things are not done, the U.S. Department of Justice needs to step in and investigate official misconduct, and bring charges where appropriate.”

The authors have filed the report – which focuses primarily on New York City, though subsequent reports will focus on other cities – with the DOJ, as well as with the United Nations as a formal complaint. They have also submitted it to the mayor’s office, the NYPD, and the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB).

Many involved with Occupy will be familiar with much that’s in the report, but its sheer scope makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. And for international authorities who may be less well-acquainted with the less covered – though equally important – aspects of police repression, the report will likely prove a valuable tool.

“[This report] should serve as a wake-up call to the sleepwalkers who have not yet realized that the serious problems with the way New York City has been exercising its police powers are a real public health emergency that we have to deal with head-on and collectively, in a comprehensive and sustained way,” Gideon Oliver, president of the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, told AlterNet.

Most shocking is the section titled “use of force”, and the accompanying 36-page table that documents 130 incidents of violence police committed against Occupy activists. The list of incidents by its very nature couldn’t be exhaustive, but is intended to show the wide range of force police used against activists. Some of the incidents are quite serious; punching, over-hand swinging of batons, and “intentionally applying very hard force to the broken clavicle of a handcuffed and compliant individual.” Reading through the table leaves one with a dizzying sense of brutality, as ten months of condensed violence flash before one’s eyes.

On October 14, the report states, an officer approached a protester, and punched him, knocking him to the ground. In an interview, the protester said, “I was walking away from him, I was not walking toward him . . . I was going away. I didn’t say anything [to the officer].” On December 17, an ordained priest was punched in the temple by an officer, causing him to seek emergency treatment. There were several injuries on March 17 and 18, when Occupy activists attempted to reestablish an encampment in Zuccotti Park. The report lists many other serious uses of force, as well as scores of instances of shoving, pushing, and physically intimidating Occupy protesters.

The report documents seven known incidents of police using pepper spray, including the infamous Anthony Bologna fiasco. I can personally confirm that police used pepper spray on November 15, the night of the paramilitary style raid on the encampment.

Police used batons to attack protesters, but the weapons list doesn’t stop there. The research team writes of instances in which barricades, or parts of barricades, have been used as weapons against protesters. On several occasions – November 17, January 1, March 17 and 21 – police picked up barricades and used them to shove crowds backward. A legal observer said the NYPD were using the barricades as a “weapon,” while another observer said in an interview, “It wasn’t just ‘defending’ or keeping the barricades in place – it was aggressive and using the barricades against people.”

The report concludes, “the evidence strongly suggests that police use of force was unnecessary and disproportionate, in violation of international law.”

The authors also document many instances of the police violating the freedom of the press. Again, this isn’t news to journalists who have covered Occupy Wall Street, but to see all of the incidents together paints a grim picture of press freedoms in New York City. The most explicit example of press repression happened on November 15, the night of the eviction from Zuccotti Park. The report states there are at least ten confirmed cases of journalists being arrested either at the eviction or at protests the following day. That is a staggering number.

Citing the remarkable work of Josh Stearns of Free Press, who has kept a tally of journalists arrested covering Occupy actions around the country, the report claims that there have been “at least 85 instances of police arrests of journalists in 12 cities across the country, including at least 44 in New York City on 15 different dates.” The chilling effect these arrests can have is clear. As a photographer said in an interview to the research team, “You never know what is going to happen. You might get hurt. You might get arrested. Just trying to get pictures.”

I was one of those reporters, arrested while documenting an Occupy action on December 12. The officer turned to me and asked if I had official NYPD-issued press credentials, and when I said I didn’t, he threw me to the ground and arrested me. (Official NYPD credentials are obtained by submitting examples of recent spot news reporting to the police’s Deputy Commissioner, Public Information for review, a process that in some cases can take years to successfully navigate—and notably, requires reporters to do their work without credentials before they can be obtained. Credentials are only required to cross police lines, not to confirm that a reporter is “legitimate”.)

This report is, significantly, not the first time lawyers have called for an independent position to be created to oversee the NYPD. As I reported for AlterNet, a federal lawsuit (in which I am a co-plaintiff) filed by civil rights attorneys claims that the NYPD is so out of control that they are incapable of policing themselves. Though Occupy isn’t in the news as much as it once was, this report does the important work of reminding the public about the clear, potentially illegal, suppression the NYPD engaged in when dealing with Occupy Wall Street. And, just as importantly, it serves as a preview of what could happen in the future if the police aren’t brought under control.

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